The end of fossil fuels: some data and quick calculations

The International Energy Agency recently released data showing that world coal production fell sharply in 2016, mainly because of big cuts in China. Looking at the graph, it appears that the peak in production was around 2013. The price of coal has experienced a “dead cat bounce” over the last year or so, essentially because China has been closing coal mines faster than it’s been closing or cancelling coal-fired power stations, but the picture tells the story for the future.

Global coal production (source IEA)

Until relatively recently, the decline of coal was the result of competition with gas, while new renewables weren’t even enough to cover the growth in demand. But a quick calculation shows that renewables will soon be taking out a bigger bite. Global electricity generation is currently about 20000 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year, growing at around 1.5 per cent, or 300TWh a year. Installations of solar PV and wind (I haven’t checked on hydro and other renewables) for 2017 look set to come in around 150 gigawatts (GW). Assuming 2000 hours of operation per year, that’s just enough to offset demand growth. So, any future growth in renewables must come directly at the expense of existing fossil fuel generation which in practice will almost always mean coal.

Turning to transport, regular commenter James Wimberley has an analysis of the prospects for peak gasoline (petrol) used in internal combustion engines. Summarising drastically, his best estimate for peak gasoline is 2032. Decarbonization requires an end to petrol-driven vehicle sales by around 2035. On this front, the good news is that quite a few countries, including the UK, France and India are pushing for an end by 2030.

Of course, all of this assumes that the attempts of Trump and Turnbull (along with likeminded culture warriors in Turkey, Poland and elsewhere) to bail out the dying coal industry come to nothing and also that Trump doesn’t manage to destroy the planet through nuclear war.

44 thoughts on “The end of fossil fuels: some data and quick calculations

  1. @witters

    If emissions have just reached their highest level before declining, the rate of increase in concentrations must also have just reached their highest level before declining,. Renewables are currently meeting new demand, so the decrease in coal is offset by increases in oil and gas. To get a decline in emissions, and therefore a slowdown in the rate of growth of CO2 concentrations, we need renewable additions to exceed growth in demand. That was the point of the post.

  2. @John Quiggin
    Sorry, I think you posted that too quickly. For a smooth peak, the first derivative approaches zero as the peak nears. The recorded acceleration at Mauna Loa is a genuine anomaly.

    Most likely it’s noise from forest fires. Oil, gas and coal are easily measured physical quantities and are sold by big companies with an interest in keeping accurate records. You need a full-Illuminati conspiracy theory to say the data are systematically understated.

  3. Lost in moderation or submission. Trying again.
    JQ’s ballpark growth rate for electricity global demand of 1.5% is confirmed by the IEA, Electricity Information overview, 2017. Link to **/publications/freepublications/publication/ElectricityInformation2017Overview.pdf, deleting the asterisks.

    “In 2015, [world gross] electricity production was 1.7% higher than 2014 […] Gross electricity production in 2015 in non-OECD countries was 13 425 TWh, an increase of 2.8% on the 2014 levels. In contrast, OECD countries posted a marginal growth of 0.4% in their gross electricity production for the period 2014-15.’
    As you’d expect,the final consumption figures (after deducting transmission and generation losses) have very similar growth rates. But the IEA adds this:
    “Between 1974 and 2015, final electricity consumption [in non-OECD countries] increased at an average annual rate of 5.1%.” So demand is slowing down everywhere, and JQ’s 1.5% growth rate is surely an upper limit for the future.

    Will Boisvert cites the 2017 BP statistical yearbook for a 2015/2016 growth rate of 2.2% in world electricity generation. This is a big disparity for something that is easily measured and produced by large companies. A spike of 0.5% in one year is most unlikely. For all the justified pillorying of the IEA forecasters on renewables, I would trust their historical data more than BP’s. After all, they don’t have the same axe to grind. The 2016 BP yearbook doesn’t have a table for electricity at all, so they are new to this.

  4. @James Wimberley

    Noise from forest fires is not noise if forest fires are increasing. Now, I don’t know for certain if forest fires are increasing but there seems to be some evidence for it. These article titles can be searched for.

    “Stark Evidence: A Warmer World Is Sparking More and Bigger Wildfires:
    The increase in forest fires, seen this summer from North America to the Mediterranean to Siberia, is directly linked to climate change, scientists say. And as the world continues to warm, there will be greater risk for fires on nearly every continent.” – Yale Environment 360.

    This goes to the following issue. If we are decreasing emissions and are thus past the peak of direct human activity emissions, this does not mean atmospheric CO2 levels will necessarily stop growing. If we have touched certain feed-backs (increased forest fires and permafrost melt for examples) then the increases in CO2 and CH4 emissions from the these sources may now be exceeding any reduction in human activity emissions.

    In other words, we may have reached a tipping point which is a precursor to a runaway situation. This is not to say that that would a runaway to a Venus scenario. It would likely be a runaway to a new state for the world climate well outside the Holocene climate state and far less benign for human civilization. I say “may” and “a tipping point which is a precursor” both to indicate we cannot be certain and to also hold out some hope. I also say “tipping point” because we are still not showing enough urgency about this situation.

    We should not start showing “small victory complacency”. Progress is still far too slow on this issue. Nothing less than a declaration of a global climate emergency is needed along with strong statist actions to directly and rapidly remodel our entire economies are renewable economies. While we are it something needs to be done about the plastics and chemicals contamination of the biosphere. It’s all part and parcel of the unsustainable capitalist industrial economy.

  5. @Ikonoclast
    Agreed that forest fires may well not be noise strictly speaking, though even if there is a trend – and I fear yoybmay be right – the signal will be noisy as well.

    “This does not mean atmospheric CO2 level will neceassily stop growing ..”
    I am surprised that this late in the day any reader of this blog still does not get the basic relationship. Net C02 emissions push up the atmospheric concentration. They will keep on doing this as long as they are positive, at least till 2050, and that is if things go well.

    Industrial emissions have plateaued for several years. (Oil is up a bit, gas up a bit, coal down a lot.) You would expect this to correspond to a constant growth in concentrations. Instead we are seeing a modest acceleration. Explanations: the acceleration is noise; it’s due to deforestation and fires; the industrial emissions are understated for unclear reasons of Chinese politics. Personally I buy 1 and 2 but not 3.

  6. The general form of the Chinese argument seems to be: Chinese stats are dodgy and subject to revision, so I’ll just make up whatever number suits my prior beliefs.

  7. @James Wimberley

    Say what? Didn’t you read my whole paragraph? 🙂

    “If we are decreasing emissions and are thus past the peak of direct human activity emissions, this does not mean atmospheric CO2 levels will necessarily stop growing. If we have touched certain feed-backs (increased forest fires and permafrost melt for examples) then the increases in CO2 and CH4 emissions from the these sources may now be exceeding any reduction in human activity emissions.”

    I was clearly saying that reducing human activity CO2e emissions now does not stop the CO2e concentration going up IF certain feed-backs have been triggered in the biosphere. If we cut emissions by x amount per annum but the new arboreal fire regime is putting 2x emissions into the atmosphere then the increased amount in the atmosphere is x.

    I find the above to be a point that a lot human-activity focused thinkers tend to forget. Past human CO2e emissions have already changed the biosphere systems and natural sinks can and do become emitters. If you want to talk “net”, talk the global “net” inclusive of human and biosphere system changes.

    What use is it to talk of things we can’t change quickly? I mean the natural feed-backs. Well, the use is it indicates that little and slow improvements on the human activity side of the equation are unlikely to be enough. We are already into global climate emergency territory. The thing is most people do not get this fact. Some do.

  8. @James Wimberley

    But possible feedbacks are not independent of emissions and that is my point. Human emissions increase concentrations which can increase natural feedback effects which can result in more natural emissions. Total emissions equal human emissions plus natural emissions. The net result comes from human emissions plus natural emissions minus take-ups by sinks. A net positive amount (after sink take-ups) increases overall concentration (assuming thorough mixing).

    I hope we are not talking at cross-purposes here nor splitting straws (I may be guilty on both counts) when we almost certainly agree on everything substantive re the dangers of greenhouse gases and the current rate of human greenhouse emissions.

    We will likely go through a period where human emissions fall, natural emissions rise more than this (from feedbacks already induced) and thus atmospheric concentrations will continue rising.

    “While we may not yet have reached the “point of no return”—when no amount of cutbacks on greenhouse gas emissions will save us from potentially catastrophic global warming—climate scientists warn we may be getting awfully close. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution a century ago, the average global temperature has risen some 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Most climatologists agree that, while the warming to date is already causing environmental problems, another 0.4 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature, representing a global average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) of 450 parts per million (ppm), could set in motion unprecedented changes in global climate and a significant increase in the severity of natural disasters—and as such could represent the dreaded point of no return.” – Scientific American.

    This colloquial answer to a reader’s question is somewhat incomplete. It doesn’t specifically mention the touching off of runaway feed-backs. The most serious question is whether we have touched off feedbacks for which no reduction of human emissions, even to zero, will now compensate, thus dooming us to a period of runaway climate change (to a new limiting point). Such a runaway period would be measured in thousands of years at least. It might even be one or two orders of magnitude larger in duration.

    Then again, as Keynes supposedly said, “In the long run we are all dead.” He might have added, “In the long, long run our species is extinct.”

  9. Oil Production:

    Four years ago world oil production was about 76 million barrels a day. Now it’s around 81 million. About a 7% increase.

    Despite prices around and above $100 US a barrel four years ago, we only got enough investment to increase oil production by around 5% with the rest coming from conventional oil fields in Iraq returning to production due to changes in people killing each other.

    Saudi production is about 700,000 barrels a day off their highest ever peak which was less than a year ago. They have had massive investment in their oil fields with clearly diminishing returns in terms of production.

    Russia is close to their maximum production which was also very recent.

    Interesting thing is, investment in new US production, which had crashed with the fall in oil prices, is now surging. Since remaining US oil is really expensive to extract, this suggests we are heading for high oil prices or US oil producers think the US dollar is going to crash. Either one. Both maybe.

    But I expect this round of oil price increase will be met with a lot of demand destruction. Diesel stationary generation will plummet from its decline. There will be the usual round of improvement in petrol and diesel vehicle efficiency as well as increased production and use of electric vehicles.

    Battery packs of lithium battery cells now appear to be around $150 per kilowatt-hour. Because electric cars are much cheaper to make than internal combustion ones when mass produced at the same razor thing margins on account of how they are far simpler, a short range electric car suitable for use in towns and cities can cost the same as a comparable combustion engine one once production numbers are high enough. Add in lower running costs, reduced pollution, environmental concerns — and the huge issue of national security, and there might be quite a few of them around soon.

    National security is a big issue. It only takes one evil Oompa Loompa to declare that oil in another country belongs to the Oompa Loompa’s country to send everyone into a tizzy. This will happen, as it always does, even though the exact details of which Oompa Loompas are involved will change according to fashion, heart attacks in existing Oompa Loompas, etc.

  10. Oh man! Bandwidth! That’s a four minute 39 second video you are expecting me to watch there. I’m in Adelaide you know, which is only a capital city in one of the richest countries in the world. You can’t expect me to be able to watch video!

    Now, let’s see how much of it has downloaded during my rant… 9 seconds. Hmmm… This may take some time…

    Okay, I got to 1 minute 6 seconds before giving up, but the general gist of the story was clear.

    Diesel use off-grid and for isolated small grids, such as on islands, is falling rapidly, mostly due to solar, but also wind, and lithium batteries are now starting to have more than a superficial effect.

    And islands are going to be great places for electric car adoption. When petrol is expensive to import, renewable electricity has a marginal cost of zero or next to it during periods of high production, and a small low cost battery pack gives enough range to reach anywhere you can drive, they make a lot of sense.

  11. @Ronald

    You can read the transcript. 🙂 BTW, even my poor ADSL2 loads that video faster than it progresses while playing. How bad is your internet?

    Of course, I hope that Turnbull’s NBN (No Bl**** Network) never comes to my neighbourhood. If it does I will have less bandwidth than you do or even none at all.

  12. How bad is my internet? Very bad! It’s so bad that if I want to look at cat pictures it’s easier to find a real cat! I have been promised I will get 4 megabits a second in December, but that’s obviously a lie. No one has internet that fast.

  13. I see events in Saudi Arabia have taken an interesting turn, with the word “interesting” of course meaning increased chance of disruption in oil supply and decreased possibility of investment required to maintain production from their oil fields, which are getting harder to maintain production from each year.

    Oh, and real live people who feel and suffer just as keenly as you and me — well, you at least — could get hurt, but news reports rarely seem to focus on that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s